Thursday, April 28, 2011
Loudflower - Happy Now? (1997)
"Alternative" music has always been somewhat ambiguous and elusive. What, specifically, is it an alternative to? Corporate rock? "Regular" rock 'n roll? Music that sounds "typical" or "uninspired" in some way? I've always felt like the term "alternative" has been somewhat inconclusive, and yet, it's hard not to use it. There are some bands that just defy categorization or description, so "alternative" is the only appropriate way to discuss their stylistic endeavor. All too often, however, music gets lumped into the "alternative" category when it's just a different distillation of the basic constructs of what rock music has become since the mid-1960's, so the term begins to lose its weight and meaning. It's rare when a band comes along that embodies what "alternative" should mean. All when a band comes along that embodies that meaning, the cruel joke is that they're often completely ignored for being too "alternative" or different.
Such is the case with Loudflower. The name alone probably throws people for a bit of a loop, given the juxtaposition of the 2 words in the name, but it is 100% appropriate for the band's style. Loudflower plays a form of driving rock music that can be quite loud at times, but they also encompass loads of melody and include more plaintive moments. They have the 90's "alternative" rock loud/soft convention down pat. While their basic rock style isn't terribly original (despite being very well written), they throw an added element that changes the dynamic greatly: a brass section. Given the band's arrival in close proximity to the somewhat short-lived ska revival, one might accuse them of riding the bandwagon. I say to those scoffers that they need to listen again, because nothing on this album remotely resembles ska, and the brass implemented here is much more textured and organic in context.
Musically, this album is an interesting ride. Loudflower plays a form of "Alt Rock" in the sense that they use the traditional loud/soft conventions with loud verse, soft chorus, or vice versa. In terms of guitars, while not reaching Nirvana or Soundgarden heights of crunch, are still fairly muscular. Guitar solos are also present here, which means the band is probably more derivative of the 70's guitar rock that birthed Pearl Jam more than the punk and post-punk that the bulk of the 90's rock heroes were spawned from. Riffs are both catchy and driving, but there's plenty of variety going on with some more atmospheric bits, quieter passages, and some songs/spots that just flat-out rock hard. Bass guitar thumps along nicely in the background and provides the driving force behind some songs, like "I Guess I Need You" where it becomes the focal point more than the guitar, which slinks into the background more to provide a more atmospheric approach. The aforementioned brass section gives a nice addition to the album. The already potent mix of guitar, bass, drums and vocals makes for a nice layer in the music, sometimes going along with the rest of the melody, other times providing either a good contrast or counterpoint to the more traditional rock instrumentation. Drumming is quite nice as well, with plenty of power, dynamics, and enough interesting stuff going on to keep it from being stale, but not so much that the drums take away from the focus of the material as a whole. Overall, this is very well constructed rock and roll.
Lyrically, Rob trudges through sufficiently angsty material as one would expect, but the lyrics are interesting and talk of personal responsibility, being dissatisfied with society, and the normal breakdown in relationships most people experience as they enter adulthood and make their first moves toward total independence from their parents. The lyrics aren't overblown, however, and don't fall into the same traps many bands from the same era did by keeping it personal and by keeping them grounded. No hyperbole about lost love or broken hearts, just a fairly real perspective sprinkled with some imaginative wordplay at times. Vocally, Rob Groover is in the zone, his combination of quiet crooning and gravelly yelling providing the emotional touchstones generally called for with music this diverse and stylized. His vocals match the lyrics well and he gives them plenty of emotional resonance.
A couple other positive notes are that the album is nicely broken in half by the title track, a slow, introspective number that belies the more muscular rock the bulk of the album has to offer. This gives a nice break from all the rocking before getting back to more of it for the last half of the album. A couple other nice touches are the last 2 tracks; "Comfortable Bed" has a different lead vocalist at the helm and provides a bit of a different flavor, and "Don't Say Goodnight" has a fanciful, almost 70's Chicago vibe to it, with its infectious melody and bouncy feel. This helps the album from becoming totally stale, as some albums can get by the end. Fortunately, the songwriting here is strong enough to keep things interesting throughout, despite the album's sprawling 15 tracks - quite a lengthy release for its time, outside of a Dream Theater album.
I don't really have anything negative to say about the album overall - I picked it up some 12 years ago and it has become a frequent companion on the road, on the iPod, and whenever I needed a familiar friend to accompany me through whatever I was doing. It's too bad this band broke up after this release; Gray Dot did something right when they signed this band and released this album, as it needed to be out there for people to hear. All too often the rock landscape is littered with bands that all start to sound the same after a while. There's no danger of that with Loudflower - truly a diamond in the rough. Highly recommended.